Normalizing “Peanuts”

This is a quick one, to get down some thoughts I had right after finally seeing last year’s The Peanuts Movie. The DVD and “to-see” movie/TV list has been stacked pretty high, so it feels like an achievement to finally get this far.

Visually, this movie is an absolutely stunning blend of the original drawings and 3D animation. It’s good natured in tone, respectful to the memory of Charles Schulz, and I would definitely pop this in the DVD player for my little niece & nephew.

But it doesn’t feel like “Peanuts.”

I hate myself for writing that. To clarify: it does feel like all the sweet moments of Peanuts the comic strip and animated franchise.

However, many of the Peanuts TV specials I remember, as well as some of the films, felt very “ambiguous” in tone. A number of them actually ended really depressing!

It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown ends with Linus’ vaguely religious beliefs completely crushed, and him launching an angry rant on “unbeliever” Charlie Brown.

linus pumpkin patch.png
Linus has a legit nervous breakdown

In A Charlie Brown Valentine not only does the titular character not get the girl in the end or any valentines, but he suffers the indignity of one of his classmates patronizingly offering him a “used” card after the fact because she feels guilty. Further, when Schroeder tries to defend him and pushes the card away, Charlie basically admits he has no dignity, and eagerly takes the card anyway.

The saddest, most brutally-honest scene from my entire childhood cartoon viewing experience

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving ends on a happy note, but only after Peppermint Patty is inexplicably cruel to Charlie over a Thanksgiving dinner she basically forced upon him to create. Patty’s attitude toward him is so jarring and sadistic that it almost overwhelms the rest of the special.

Peppermint Patty, basically taking over for Lucy as being the inexplicably mean girl

And in the first feature-length Peanuts film A Boy Named Charlie Brown, (spoilers) he loses the spelling bee that is the central plot point of the movie—making a dumb mistake (he misspells the breed of his own dog) that crushes all his dreams. Instead of an ending where he suddenly “rewarded” in a different way and makes this great life-realization about life being the journey and not the destination…he just sort of goes on to another day.

Charlie Brown lets down his friends, his school, his town…but most importantly, himself

But in The Peanuts Movie, every misfortune and humiliation Charlie faces seems to be perfectly and very obviously constructed to result in his payoff at the finale—when the Little Red Haired Girl, whom he has a crush on, makes a speech about what a great person he is because he faced adversity with a great attitude. And in the speech she literally goes through every plot point regarding Charlie’s struggles.

“And I also totes don’t think it’s creepy that you held on to my pencil for the entire movie and fetishized over my teeth marks.”

And that’s really heart-warming and great, teaching important values.

But that’s not “Peanuts.”

No, the way it would have ended in classic “Peanuts” would be Charlie finally catching up with her at the end, successfully tracking her down at the bus station before she leaves for camp…and she turns around and doesn’t even know who he is. She was in school with him for an entire year, and yet she doesn’t know who he is. And he feels embarrassed and she just turns around and leaves for camp.

To me, even as a very small child, it was not only the dysfunctionality of the “Peanuts” universe that was so profound, but the ability to leave story arcs and plotlines without pat, “satisfying” endings. Because I didn’t feel as if I was being lied to; I felt like I was given the “straight dope” on everyday existence. If Charlie Brown could walk away from losing the (nationally televised) spelling bee and just start another day—not horribly depressed, but not caught in this manic “Law Of Attraction” uber-positive mindset either—so could anyone.

But you can’t pitch a high-budget adaptation of a 60+ year old children’s property to a movie studio with an ambiguous ending like that. I’ve seen the trailers at the beginning of the DVD for the types of animated movies that get the green-light nowadays. This is an Alvin and the Chipmunks: Road Chip type of market.

I guess this wasn’t a very quick post, after all.